It is now the most popular and the most widely known of all English books. In none do we see more clearly the new imaginative force which had been given to the common life of Englishmen by their study of the Bible. Its English is the simplest and the homeliest English which has ever been used by any great English writer; but it is the English of the Bible. The images of the "Pilgrim's Progress" are the images of prophet and evangelist; it borrows for its tenderer outbursts the very verse of the Song of Songs, and pictures the Heavenly City in the words of the Apocalypse. But so completely has the Bible become Bunyan's life that one feels its phrases as the natural expression of his thoughts. He has lived in the Bible till its words have become his own. He has lived among its visions and voices of heaven till all sense of possible unreality has died away. He tells his tale with such a perfect naturalness that allegories become living things, that the Slough of Despond and Doubting Castle are as real to us as places we see every day, that we know Mr. Legality and Mr. Worldly Wiseman as if we had met them in the street. It is in this amazing reality of impersonation that Bunyan's imaginative genius specially displays itself. But this is far from being his only excellence.
In its range, in its directness, in its simple grace, in the ease with which it changes from lively dialogue to dramatic action, from simple pathos to passionate earnestness, in the subtle and delicate fancy which often suffuses its childlike words, in its playful humour, its bold character-painting, in the even and balanced power which passes without effort from the Valley of the Shadow of Death to the land "where the Shining Ones commonly walked, because it was on the borders of heaven," in its sunny kindliness unbroken by one bitter word, the "Pilgrim's Progress " is among the noblest of English poems. For if Puritanism had first discovered the poetry which contact with the spiritual world awakes in the meanest soul, Bunyan was the first of the Puritans who revealed this poetry to the outer world. The journey of Christian from the City of Destruction to the Heavenly City is simply a record of the life of such a Puritan as Bunyan himself, seen through an imaginative haze of spiritual idealism in which its commonest incidents are heightened and glorified.
He is himself the pilgrim who flies from the City of Destruction, who climbs the hill Difficulty, who faces Apollyon, who sees his loved ones cross the river of Death towards the Heavenly City, and how, because "the hill on which the City was framed was higher than the clouds, they therefore went up through the region of the air, sweetly talking as they went".
The success, however, of the system of religious repression rested mainly on the maintenance of peace; and while Bunyan was lying in Bedfofd Gaol, and the Church was carrying on its bitter persecution of the Nonconformists, England was plunging into a series of bitter humiliations and losses abroad. The old commercial jealousy between the Dutch and English, which had been lulled by a formal treaty in 1662, but which still lived on in petty squabbles at sea, was embittered by the cession of Bombay- - a port which gave England an entry into the profitable trade with India - and by the establishment of a West Indian Company in London which opened a traffic with the Gold Coast of Africa. The quarrel was fanned into a war. Parliament voted a large supply unanimously; and the King was won by hopes of the ruin of the Dutch presbyterian and republican government, and by his resentment at the insults he had suffered from Holland in his exile. The war at sea which followed was a war of giants. An obstinate battle off Lowestoft ended in a victory for the English fleet; but in an encounter the next year with De Ruyter off the North Foreland Monk and his fleet after two day's fighting were only saved from destruction by the arrival of Prince Rupert. The dogged admiral renewed the fight, but the combat again ended in De Ruyter's favour and the English took refuge in the Thames. Their fleet was indeed ruined, but the losses of the enemy had been hardly less. "English sailors may be killed," said De Witt, "but they cannot be conquered;" and the saying was as true of one side as the other.
A third battle, as hard-fought as its predecessors, ended in the triumph of the English, and their fleet sailed along the coast of Holland, burning ships and towns. But Holland was as unconquerable as England herself, and the Dutch fleet was soon again refitted and was joined in the Channel by the French. Meanwhile, calamity at home was added to the sufferings of the war. In the preceding year a hundred thousand Londoners had died in six months of the Plague which broke out in the crowded streets of the capital; and the Plague was followed now by a fire, which, beginning in the heart of London, reduced the whole city to ashes from the Tower to the Temple. Thirteen hundred houses and ninety churches were destroyed. The loss of merchandise and property was beyond count. The Treasury was empty, and neither ships nor forts were manned when the Dutch fleet appeared at the Nore, advanced unopposed up the Thames to Gravesend, forced the boom which protected the Medway, burned three men-of-war which lay anchored in the river, and withdrew only to sail proudly along the coast, the masters of the Channel.